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The Limits of Relying on Disagreements Between Moscow, Ankara

The Limits of Relying on Disagreements Between Moscow, Ankara

Friday, 21 February, 2020 - 12:15

There has been a lot of talk about the dispute between Moscow and Ankara over influence in Syria. This talk stems from the clashes between factions aligned to each of the two sides and their contestation over the most important sites and facilities in rural Idlib and Aleppo, marking a new level of tension and escalation as Turkish military observation points were bombed by Syrian forces, probably with Russian support and cover, killing and wounding several Turkish soldiers.


Ankara retaliated by targeting a group of Syrian forces, killing and wounding dozens. The Syrian army and the Iranian militias’ successful takeover of dozens of villages and towns make matters more severe. This while Ankara hardened its rhetoric and dragged thousands of troops to protect its military sites in an attempt to pressure the regime and its allies and hinder their advances on land and try to change the scene in the last de-escalation zone.


The two sides indeed have divergent reasons for their involvement in Syria, but it is also true that they have strong shared interests that compel them to put an end to what is happening or limit it to the greatest extent possible.


Firstly, they are both classical pragmatists, opening the door to mutual readiness to make concessions and solidify an agreement, thus preventing things from going as far as they potentially could or towards a bone-breaking battle. This explains the two sides’ repeated statements on their commitment to the agreements made in Sochi and Astana, including noteworthy commitments to maintain coordination and expanding channels of communication and dialogue to avoid surprises and keep developments under control, especially that both of them are aware of the importance of each of them to the other and the major losses that they would incur if the contention were to escalate.


Just as Russia wants to avoid drowning in the swamp of an endless war, Ankara wants to avoid dragging itself into a wide-ranging battle with the regime that could lead to a losing confrontation with its two allies Russia and Iran, in light of an ambiguous American position which will most likely be limited, as usual, to verbal support.


Naturally, neither eliminating nor challenging the Kremlin's presence and role in Syria or the Levant, is a priority for the government in Ankara so long as it receives several forms of support and protection from it. Rather, what it has in mind is cooperating with Russia to curb Kurdish expansion and limit the Kurds’ abilities and the threat that they pose, find a solution to the growing Syrian refugee crisis and expand the influence it has managed to garner or at least maintain it.


It is also not in Russia’s interest to lose its alliance with Ankara so long as it can employ this alliance in its contest for influence with the West over points of tension all over the world. This does not mean that Russia is not working to curtail the agreement’s significance and use it to maximize its influence and control the region's balance of power; this includes using the agreement to threaten the regime in Damascus and shape its positions. Russia also wants to use the agreement to control what remained of the opposition and its armed factions, ensure a degree of favorability for itself among the Sunni Muslim majority and, most importantly, to curtail Iran’s ideological and military presence, which is growing further and further in Syrian society and its economic, security, and military infrastructure. Russia also wants to prepare for the possibility of the west playing a new role in Syria, compelled by the war’s developments on the ground and the possibility of progress on the reconstruction front.


Secondly, there’s the pair’s strong political agreements, which have accumulated over the years preceding Erdogan’s major shift towards Moscow, which began with his apology for downing the Russian Sukhoi jet-plane. This deepened their relationship and shared interests and made them interlinked and intertwined to such a degree that it is difficult to imagine either of them taking a position that is antagonistic to the other’s presence in the region or either of them being ready to cut off his relationship with the other.


This was strengthened further by the emergence of their mutual need for solidarity and cooperation in the face of western economic sanctions imposed on them and the agreement the pair laid down in Sochi and Astana. Before that, Turkish complicity allowed Russia and the regime's forces to control Aleppo and led to opposition militants being transferred from rural Damascus, Homs and Daraa to Idlib after the deals and reconciliations that were made there. Russia returned the favor by turning a blind eye to Turkish forces’ incursion in Afrin, then in Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad, its purge and murder of Kurds. Subsequently, last October, Russia signed a deal with Turkey agreeing to the establishment of a safe zone in the region north and east of the Euphrates.


Third, what makes the idea of reaching a mutual understanding more appealing is the depth of the shared economic interests between the two countries. The size of commercial exchange between them in 2019 reached around 30 billion dollars, while the number of Russian tourists in Turkey reached around 6 million. These numbers are very important to the stability of the relationship and on the Turkish economy that is currently facing difficulties that make cutting ties with Russia unbearable. Their relationship was made even more stable after they cooperated in the construction project of a nuclear power plant and Turkish gas pipelines to transport Russian gas to Turkey and Europe.


One should therefore not rely on a new Turkish position in confronting Russian presence only because Erdogan's tone has become sharper and more threatening. Probably, the strength of their shared interests will push them to reach a new understanding, that will be as usual at the expense of Syrian blood, interests and the suffering of refugees. This may culminate in Ankara settling for the outcome of the last battles and framing it under the Sochi Agreement of 2018 on accepting the spread of regime forces supported by Russia between Damascus and Aleppo, and between the M4 and M5 to secure the two international routes from Aleppo and Lattakia.


In the end, regardless of the nature of the struggle over influence between Russia and Turkey in Syria, its horizons are limited, which means that it is necessary to be cautious of building and relying on it. What we have observed in the last few years has shown us time and time again the bitterness of this bet, and that it is nothing more than a waste of efforts and opportunities, and has confirmed the readiness of both sides to overcome any dispute between them and that they are more often than not in agreement, and that they now see that the severity of the damage that would result from their competition and the radical divergence in interests and goals that comes with it.


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